What a long, strange trip it's been. Sitting now at this keyboard, my recent past seems almost as a distant mirage; times and situations which even to myself appear cloudy and beyond my grasp, as if they had been part of someone else's history. Yet these things did happen; they were the stuff of my life. Truth surely can be stranger than fiction.
In May of 2000 I registered an astounding 703 pounds on the Toledo floor scale of my local hospital. I was 45 years old and naturally believed that I would die in that state. After all, I had built for myself a bodily "Black Hole of Calcutta" and what were the chances that any person could ever claw their way out of such a dank and secure prison, re-emerging to breathe the fresh air of life?
As of this writing, I have lost over 530 of those artery-clogging pounds. I achieved this on my own, in a natural way, with no surgical procedures having been performed. No particular "diet" plan was followed; no pills, potions or ab-crunching exercises played a part in my recovery. There was no silver bullet, no magical, elusive ingredient that has thus far escaped the populace's hold. My tale is one of redemption, a story of re-evaluating my worth and wresting back my birthright of being valuable only because I am human; all this despite what the outside world, society told me was my assigned "place."
Let's be blunt. Rarely do we publicly hear about a person of enormous weight and when we do, it's "news" because that soul has either been found "glued" to their sofa cushion's fibers from years of sitting in the same positions, or a story regarding the fire department being called to cut a hole in the wall of the room of an obese person is in to extricate them for transport to a hospital. Generally these stories have a "Barnum & Bailey" feel to them. Dignity of the individual is nowhere to be found in the footage or words. Perhaps the media and viewers believe that these people have no feelings.
If we are honest, we will admit that most witnessing these stories don't begin crying out of compassion for these people's plight, or send their prayers on high begging for mercy, but instead respond with revulsion, with a "slowing to see an accident's aftermath" kind of reaction, with the thought of "Oh, my God, what did they allow themselves to become!" Our innate prejudice is palpable. Most of us are not cast in the vein of a Mother Teresa. And I have seen this reaction in people whom I would otherwise cast as caring souls; people who'd give others the shirts off their backs when the need arose. I guess these shirts don't fit the backs of the obese.
And so the natural tendency of most gravely overweight people is to retreat from the glare of society's judgment and to by degrees isolate themselves, thus compounding their problem by cutting off possible nurture that is necessary for any human being to thrive. That is exactly what I did. Others have said to me, "How did you ever gain so much weight!?" The answer is simple. It came on over years, or as I often say, "one cheeseburger at a time." All that is required is 3,500 unexpended calories per week to gain one pound. Multiply that by 52 weeks in a year, then that number by 10 and voila! It only takes persistence.
I spent more than a dozen years in a self-imposed lockdown, rarely leaving my seventh floor apartment's door and then only when pleadings to my doctor for a needed antibiotic without an office call were met with a firm "No." What "normal" person would welcome going out, when each time you did you were met with stares, people huddling to giggle and whisper or, once the attempt at eye contact was made by me, having people find anything, anything to look at besides my eyes?
I had to have a double-wide wheelchair made for me. Some doors in offices were not wide enough to accommodate it, so I'd have to suffer the further humiliation of standing up at each doorway, having the person pushing me, collapse the chair, then unfolding it on the other side and sitting back down—all of this in view of anyone sitting there or passing by. One doctor's office had six different doors to pass through before you reached the inner sanctum of an exam room. It's hard to find words to adequately describe the anxiety and degradation I felt during those moments. I was a page out of "Ripley's Believe It or Not."
I am a veteran of rafts of "diet" plans, of well-rounded ones and others of seemingly dubious nutritional value. Most of any food plan will work, at least for a while. It is not the "diet" that matters. That is what I discovered on this unlikely journey. What does matter, what will create lasting change for the better is how you feel about who you are. Overweight people are "experts" in losing weight, not doctors. We've done it time and time again. Many people have lost a thousand pounds, up and down over a lifetime. So when doctors would give me a pyramid food chart, pat me on the head and tell me to "go home and follow the chart," I wanted to scream. As if I didn't know what I should eat for better health. I'd been studying charts all my life.
Sixty-five percent of Americans are now categorized as being overweight; 18 percent of that number are obese, or 100 pounds or more over their ideal weight. The numbers of obese children has risen precipitously over the last 10 years. If doctors have the answer and that answer is simply intake/output related, then why aren't we all thin? The reason is that overeating is not logical. I do have some experience with this subject. What I did was irrational and harmful. Overeating is emotionally driven.
Everyone has a crutch. Some people drink too much, others gamble till they lose their homes and families. Then there are those that beat their wives, berate their children or abuse drugs. The list is endless. I contend that each and every one of those examples stem from a problem held within. We attempt to fill an emotional hole, some missing piece of us with a variety of stop-gap substitutes. It never really works; maybe for the moment or perhaps a little longer. It's like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. But that emptiness is never truly filled. In a most unusual and unexpected turn of events, I found a way to finally and truly feel "fed." I never what hit me till I was well on my way back to life, to really living again. I will never look at things or people in the same way.
As a birthday gift in May of 2000, my sister Carolyn bought me a computer. I have never liked technology; machines don't interact, they can't smile back or engage you in conversation. I'm a gregarious sort of person. People's company means everything to me, so my situation during those years was a particularly trying and withering experience. In thanked her for it, of course, but silently wondered what she could've been thinking when selecting my gift.
During those years I spent much of my time reading books, mostly regarding history and politics. C-Span brought the wild world of Washington, D.C., into my living room, although there was rarely anyone around with which to "spar" over proposed legislation. I was known to occasionally shout at the television screen, however. Then came the computer. This alien form just sat there cluttering up my one bedroom apartment. Eventually out of the sheer boredom and tempered by curiosity, I ventured into the realm of cyberspace. There were fits and starts in the beginning. I had never learned to type in school and so I used, still do, the two-finger method to travel to places as yet unseen by my cloistered eyes. I visited the Library of Congress website to look up historical documents, mailed letters to congressman and explored news media websites for information. Behind those four walls this machine had become my window on the world.
One day I noticed a boxed area labeled "politics." It had another listing below: "chat room." I was intrigued and decided to join this group. There were varieties of opinions expressed; some people's writings were well thought out, others just seemed to spew invective. I began to find that I had favorite members, and they were not necessarily those who shared my political bent, but all had one thing in common. Wit. Humor, the ability to laugh at one's self or at things, even serious ones is a sure sign of intelligence in my book. You can get your point across far better with a few well-placed words than with some long, nasty diatribe. Will Rogers, Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln's words easily make my point. Within a few weeks some of these members and I had exchanged personal e-mail addresses and a whole new chapter began. I was blissfully unaware of what was to come; what was already happening. I only knew that I was feeling better about getting up each day, that I had something to look forward to doing and that was enough for me.
I came to know these people well. We shared family births, deaths, marriages, divorces, reunions, graduations, sorrows and joys. We shared humor as well. I wrote, still do to do this day, horrid limericks for a man in England, and he returns the favor. Laughter, the common thread woven through the tapestry of humanity heals us. Who could have imagined that a machine, a computer could become the catalyst for a 180 degree change in the direction of my life? I am still the most surprised of all.
I remember the day I realized I was losing weight. I had no scale in my home; none could accommodate one third of my mass. I typed seated on an enormous ottoman. That morning, my companion of many years, a highly neurotic calico cat jumped up onto the seat beside me. It was enough to make me stop tapping on the keyboard. I looked down at her in puzzlement, and then laughed at myself; there was nothing unusual about a cat jumping. They did it all the time. Then it dawned on me. There had never been room for her to land on the seat in all the years I'd had her.
When you weigh over a third of a ton, you don't notice even what would be considered a large loss to most. I don't recall this new information as particularly impressing me, not only because I had long since believed I'd never be of normal size again, but more because losing weight was not my focus. I was feeling loved, cared for, for the first time in so long. That was what I craved. Communication had become my obsession; no longer did ham and Swiss on rye whisper its torment from the fridge. And so months and pounds fell away and I slowly began my journey back out into the world that had once so rejected me. That's a whole other tale I could tell, one replete with what I call "firsts." What a wonderful, frightening, enlivening series of reacquainting events waited for me outside those prison gates. Truly pictures do speak louder than a thousand words. I'll let those included here demonstrate the axiom.
Here is what I know now. Being obese is an external symptom of an internal turmoil.
Unlike an alcoholic who can many times mask his or her problem with a fine linen suit and a breath mint, or the pearly-tooth grin of a man who goes home at night and slaps his wife around, the fat person wears their problem where all can see it and be judged accordingly and immediately. My weight loss was a "side effect" of regaining my worth, of rediscovering my value. It was no longer a struggle to control what I ate. It came naturally to me. I was valued by others and in turn valued myself. I was being loved and nurtured by faceless strangers. In a world where you are given levels of worth dependent on first impressions, these friends accepted who I was based on my mind and soul. The anonymity of the computer gave me access to a world that would've just as well have left me alone, alone to die. But I did not.
There are many people today who languish alone behind closed doors in the same condition I found myself not so long ago. They are in terrible physical and emotional distress. The medical community has few methods of reaching out to these souls in any meaningful sense. There are a few facilities scattered around the states, both public and private that have in-house programs to deal with the morbidly obese, but these are cost-prohibitive to most that are in need of them. Allow me to relate a case I am personally aware of.
A couple of years ago, a hospital in my area had heard my story and asked me to come speak to a weight loss group that they sponsored. I had lost about 300 pounds at that point. I got a lot of positive feedback from the attendees and soon thereafter the nurse in charge of the group asked if I could go visit a person who was homebound in a nearby town. This woman also weighed in the area of 700 pounds. The nurse had received a call from the fire department, as they had been called to this woman's home when she had fallen on the floor and was unable to get back up on her own. The fireman was concerned enough with what he saw to ask for further help for this lady. I have found that emergency workers and fire personnel are the exception to the rule when it comes to compassion. I was always treated with as much dignity as possible by these brave and loving human beings.
I told the nurse that I would be happy to go visit this woman for support, but asked her to really listen to what she was asking me to do. She was requesting a civilian go "support" a person with grave medical and emotional needs, a person that would surely die if she didn't have serious intervention in some form. There was a long pause on the line. She admitted that it was so and that it was as frustrating for her as it was for me.
As I was leaving this woman's home after my visit that first day, I turned to smile and say goodbye. Instantly I was transported back to the many times that a family member had come to see me in my apartment and was then preparing to leave. Tears welled in my eyes as I recalled the feeling that, as they had come and brought a piece of life with them, they now were taking life away as the door pulled shut. It was the silence that smothered you. It's what I used to term "the sameness." When you're inside every day for years each day becomes the same. Then I left her shutting the door behind me.
I now speak publicly about my experience and strive to bring awareness and change to the treatment of the obese, both medically and in how society's prejudice impacts these people's lives. They are as valuable as any other living soul. In this age of supposed sensitivity regarding diversity, it would seem that prejudice toward the overweight is still universally considered fair game. After all, "we" aren't like "them." "We" would never let that happen to "us"! Look in the mirror, America. I guarantee you that many of these people have far more beautiful spirits than those who point the fingers.
My life is so changed. I had not driven a car since 1987. I had to ask the service station attendant whether my car took unleaded gasoline. I got the oddest look from him. I had never seen the digital scanners used at the grocery store or a can crushing machine. Tall buildings had appeared downtown in my absence; places that were fields a dozen years before were now shopping malls. I can now go and stay overnight at my son's house, play ball in the yard with my two grandsons or feed ducks in the park. I had dreamt for years of sitting in long, lush grass and wriggling my toes through it, believing that that day would never come to me again. And yet it did come.
I smile all the time. Some think I'm crazy; but I know a secret. It's as clear as the nose on my thinner face. Life is sweet and always worth living no matter the tempests that blow through it. There will always be a sunrise and a second chance if you believe. I believe. I believe in me.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, December 9, 2013